Orthography & My Ten-Year Battle with Spell Checker
- March 24, 2022
- Connie Berry
Okay, this isn’t an epic battle like the Hundred Years’ War or the Hatfields and McCoys, but the skirmishes are fierce and the outcome, so far, undecided.
Here’s the problem: Spell Checker thinks it knows best, and so do I.
I write mystery fiction set in the UK. Most of my characters are British, which means they speak and write the way people do there. Spell Checker does not approve. I can almost hear the churlish tsking as I type, “Pull up alongside the kerb, will you? I need to cash a cheque.” I hate all those squiggly red lines. I do click on “Add to Dictionary,” but right now I’ve programmed in so many alternate spellings of words, the program is all but useless in catching actual typos. And imagine how Spell Checker responds to eighteenth-century English, like the old diary in my debut novel. There should be a way to explain things to artificial intelligence, don’t you think?
The difficulty stems from the fact that England and America are “two nations divided by a common language.” The quote is usually attributed to Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw. In “The Canterville Ghost,” Wilde wrote: “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” And the Treasury of Humorous Quotations quotes Shaw as saying: “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”
How did that happen, you ask? On both sides of the Pond, the English language evolved over centuries from its Germanic roots. The variations in spelling, punctuation, and syntax stem from a difference in orthography—the accepted standards for writing and spelling language. Standardized spelling in England can be traced to Dr. Samuel Johnson’s two-volume Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. His goal was to rationalize spellings, trace etymologies, offer guidance on pronunciation, and “preserve the purity, and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom”—i.e. “to fix the English language.”
In America, the standard was set in 1806 by Noah Webster’s Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, followed in 1828 by The Dictionary of American English. Webster’s purpose was to simplify spelling and forge a new American vernacular. The two camps have been at odds ever since. Webster is largely responsible for such differences between American and English spelling as color/colour or theater/theatre. In his desire to apply phonetic principles, Webster removed the final “unnecessary” k from words like publick and musick. Not all his ideas caught on, which is why we don’t use tung for tongue or lether and fether.
Back to Spell Checker. The Kate Hamilton Mysteries are set in the UK and feature an American antiques dealer with a gift for solving crimes. Kate is an antiques dealer—a dealer in antiques. She is not, as Spell Checker insists, an antique dealer—a very, very old lady who happens to sell objects of the past. And I myself, as I say in my bio, was raised by antiques dealers—not antique dealers. My parents were not more than a hundred years old when I was born, which is the technical definition of an antique.
At the moment, Spell Checker and I are at a stalemate. I won’t give up, and Spell Checker refuses to learn.
Do you have a pet peeve with Spell Checker? We could join forces.
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